Barbara Neely Essay - Critical Essays


Barbara Neely’s Blanche White series, while not extensive, shows evolution of intent and scope. The first novel, Blanche on the Lam, introduces readers to Blanche, whose voice and persona set the tone for the series. A middle-aged domestic worker, Blanche quickly begins educating readers on the injustices and indignities that African Americans often experience in their daily lives. The book opens with Blanche’s appearance in court, a scene that suggests connections between race and poverty and that exposes hypocrisies in class structure in the United States. Soon, however, Neely begins to focus on racial stereotypes (especially that of the mammy), exposing how prevalent and how psychically damaging such perceptions of African Americans are. Throughout the novel Blanche comments on prejudices against dark-skinned persons (in both black and white communities) and the invisibility of lower-class service personnel.

Neely surprised reader expectations in her second novel, Blanche Among the Talented Tenth, by turning away from black/white relationships to examine color prejudice among African Americans, a prejudice that privileges light-skinned African Americans and has created a market for an array of beauty products designed to make black people look whiter. Throughout, Blanche comments on elitist attitudes among affluent African Americans and worries about her adopted daughter’s growing preoccupation with and acceptance of the white culture’s standards of beauty. Neely also uses this novel to show Blanche’s rejection of traditional Christianity in favor of an African-influenced spirituality that includes calling on the guidance of ancestors.

The plot in the third Blanche White novel, Blanche Cleans Up, is set against a backdrop of political corruption, urban environmental hazards, and Blanche’s worries about her children’s need to be smart about sexual choices. All these issues cross race lines, but Blanche knows that African Americans and the poor are often disproportionately affected by them.

The fourth book in the series, Blanche Passes Go, brings resolution to an incident alluded to in the first novel: the rape of Blanche by a white employer. More thematically focused than the previous book, this novel weaves together crimes that collectively show the scope of abuse against women—a societal pattern that crosses race and class lines. This work has a psychological dimension not always present in Neely’s work, as Blanche struggles to overcome the fear of her previous attacker and to vent her righteous anger without succumbing to a resentment and distrust of all men.

As these descriptions suggest, readers are more likely to recall each story’s social concern more than the plots and to enjoy Blanche’s personality and her interaction with her immediate circle of family and friends than to become engrossed in the whodunit aspect of the novels. The antagonists are not particularly memorable, but for most readers that will be forgivable. What keeps readers coming back for more is Blanche’s voice, with its no-holds-barred, tell-it-like-it-is explanations of the ways of the world for African Americans and for female domestic workers of all ilks.

Blanche on the Lam

Blanche on the Lam introduces Neely’s protagonist Blanche White and opens with a scene that sets the tone for the series: Blanche is in court, waiting to be sentenced for writing a bad check, thinking about all her white clients who so often fall behind in paying her wages. Blanche is a domestic worker who supports herself and the two children she is raising by cooking and cleaning homes for white families. When Blanche realizes the judge is sending her to jail instead of letting her pay a fine, she panics and bolts. She hides out as a live-in maid for a white family and soon learns...

(The entire section is 1586 words.)